The Death Road

When researching in Norway the activities to do while in South America, we came across a particularly interesting adventure: Mountain biking in Bolivia on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The road is the Yungas Road and it is about an hour outside of La Paz. However, the more known name for this way of transport is ”Death Road”. The name doesn’t sound too appealing, but it provides an experience like no other that lets you freely cruise down a rocky path on the edge of a mountain. Sounds like a beautiful time, but then again, nicknames are given for a reason, right? The road mainly got its name when it was the only roadway to get over the mountain from La Paz. Cars, vans, busses, and trucks would attempt this journey as they navigated up and down the hairpin turns running along the steep mountainside as they travelled to and from La Paz. X amount of people were killed…deeming it the nickname ”Death Road”. However, Death Road is not only know for claiming many lives, it is also one of the most unique ways of passage providing absolutely astounding scenery – and this is what attracted the mountain bikers. The road has become much safer – or at least the kill count has gone down- after (2006) when the new road was built. Now there is hardly any traffic on it and the accidents that do happen are usually self-induced with uncareful biking maneuvers. So after a lot of research on safety, we decided it was an adventure we just couldn’t refuse. We booked with this best biking company in La Paz, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and tested our fate.

 

The time had come. We had spent 10 weeks travelling South America with just one day left, and one supreme activity: Death Road. This activity was planned from the very start of the trip. It was something we felt we must do, but not by coincidence that it was our very last activity of the trip. Let’s be honest, it is called ”Death Road” for a reason, so on the off chance that we were swallowed by the steep mountainside, we wanted to be sure that we had already experienced everything else we wanted to accomplish. And if we did happen to take a tumble, at least we would be going out with a bang, right?

 

Until recently – after a new highway was built for the transportation – Yunghas Road was known as the most dangerous road in the world. It is a narrow, gravel dirt road that slithers for 43 miles down steep mountainside connecting La Paz to Corioco. It is estimated that the canyons once claimed 200-300 lives per year. However, since the new highway has been built and most of the traffic now is just local and adventure-seeking tourist, it boasts a modest 20-25 lives per year. See, nothing to worry about; the statistics are much lower now. However, it was still the rainy season and our friends from the Inca Trail that did it the previous week did experience a landslide. Nope. Can’t defer us now. We had waited all trip for this, we were doing it. So we went to the highest rated service provider, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and signed up. After we had signed up, however, we learned a Japanese guy rode off into the oblivion just a few days before us. Slightly startling. So we had a nice last meal and made a few phone calls to our parents (just in case).

 

”So, son, what do you guys have planned for your last day?” ”Oh, nothing too exciting. Just a bike ride.”

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Alright. Enough talk. Let’s get to the ride. Our bus climbed out of La Paz at the crack of dawn on the new highway. We reached the top (15,260 ft.) and tested out the bikes. Being as we were in South America where Pachamama and sacrifices are so important (even more so in Bolivia), we performed our ceremony to Pachamama. As with all ceremonies, you must offer something to Pachamama, so our guide made the speech and passed around what she called ”holy water”. We had to ask Pachamama to get us down safely, pour her a drink, and then take a drink ourselves. At this point, nothing should have surprised me in South America. But I was quite shocked when I poured the clear liquid – which I assumed would just be water since it was early in the morning and we were about to bike down a road named after death, but I was wrong– into my mouth. It was 96% alcohol, and the taste stuck around far longer that it was welcome. With nerves slightly dulled now, we began the ride. The first part of the ride is on a paved road, and it is magnificent. It’s nice to have this precursor so you can get used to the bike before taking on the narrow gravel roads. We raced down the smooth pavement with nothing but the fierce wind on our faces and breathtaking sights all around. From the top, we were surrounded by snow and mountains, and could see the winding road disapear into the distance. And what beautiful weather we had! With the smooth sailing behind us, we entered the infamous Death Road. We started slowly letting gravity be our escort down through the winding curves. It was steep, the road was tight, and the loose rocks weren’t exactly comforting. Oh, and then there’s the steep drop off immediately to your left. Because on this road, you don’t drive on the right side, you drive on the left so you can see exactly how much room there is on the edge if you meet another vehicle. Just wonderful. Not only are we distracted by some of the most stunning, authentically tragic sights we’ve ever seen, but we have to ride a foot from this hazordous beauty in case we meet oncoming traffic.

Giving thanks and asking Pachamama for permission:

But it was actually no big deal. It’s just riding a bike. And it you take it easy and just ride a bike, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. However, you must keep yourself in check. The minute you start to get a bit too comfortable on your bike and gain a little extra confidence with slightly too much speed on a turn, you feel the back wheel sliding away from you, and the road quickly reminds you of its name and why you see so many crosses along the way. So if you just ride like a normal human being, there really is nothing to worry about. But if you get a little out of control, you can easily see how you could plummit to your death. Fortunately, we escaped, and had quite possibly our best experience of the entire trip. It was absolutely remarkable. Our adrenaline raged the entire time but at the same time we were completely at peace. It was such a dream experience. It’s that dream where you are doing something incredible, such as flying, so you know it is just a dream, except we weren’t dreaming this time. It’s something I am so thankful we did. Within hours we were able to witness different climate changes as we descended into the depths of the jungle. It defined South America for me. It was slightly dangerous, tragically beautiful, and like nothing else; the perfect ending to our incredible vacation. We reached the bottom safely and celebrated with a big hug, kiss, and cold, cold beer – and they never felt more deserving.

Inka Trail to Machu Picchu

Day 1

They say that Machu Picchu is one of the most remarkable sites on the planet. After seeing it with my own eyes, I can now attest to this – it is truly spectacular and such a unique and spiritual site. Any way you decide to get to Machu Picchu is amazing, but we decided to take the Inca Trail to gain the true pilgrimage aspect from it. It is a 4-day, 3-night trek that takes you on the original Inca Trail that goes through the magnificent Andes mountains, river valleys, and the high jungle. The trail is 40 km (25 miles) long and reaches a highest altitude of 4200 m (13 779 feet). We booked with the company SAS Travel Peru, and after a bad first impression, our experience was absolutely exemplary with our amazing guide, Felipe. Felipe was a very special, passionate guide from the mountains and still practices the religion of the Incas. Learning about their customs and performing ceremonies to Pachamama (Mother Earth) was an enriching experience that we will never forget, and our participation was something that clearly meant a lot to him. While they no longer sacrifice humans, he did tell us about his family sacrificing a guinea pig not too long ago when his sister got sick. It was truly fascinating to see how much the nature means to him and how much he appreciates everything that Pachamama provides. We were a total of 14, and what a great group we were. We all became friends quickly and became even closer going through this life-changing journey.

After having completed the Santa Cruz trek, we had a bit more confidence going into this one. With similar altitudes, it was really nice to already be adjusted and not have to worry about any altitude sicknesses. However, this doesn’t mean it was easy, just easier than it would have been. The first day was relatively easy, but we still walked for 7 hours. Each day our porters – the locals that carried 30 kg of camping equipment – raced ahead of us to set up camp twice a day. Going into it, we didn’t really have high expectations for the food basing it on what we had on our previous trek. I mean, how good could the food be while hiking four days in the mountains? We saw our blue tents set up around midday and hungrily marched into the tent. What a pleasant surprise we had waiting for us; We had freshly prepared ceviche! And it was some of the best ceviche we have had while in Peru. How the chef was able to make fresh, tasty ceviche out of a tent, is beyond me. Time and time again we were surprised at how he was able to prepare such tasty food. Each meal we had a starter, a soup, and then big, family style portions for the main course. It was amazing. We had fresh trout from the river, Peruvian pizza, and he even managed to bake a cake for us on the last night. We really enjoyed all of our meals, but after such large lunches, it made it quite difficult to start hiking again. Fortunately for us, they always had a soup or tea to aid in the digestion process. After lunch, we hiked a couple of more hours before reaching our first Incan ruins site. We were so impressed by this fortress that we wondered how Machu Picchu could be any better. We had a history lesson about the ruins, and then walked another 2 hours to reach our camp for the night.

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Day 2 was definitely the most difficult of all the days. This was the day we were to ascend “Dead Woman’s Pass”. We woke up with some rain, but with a recently purchased poncho, this would be no problem, right? Wrong. I bought, what I thought, was a good quality poncho, but it turned out I would have been better off with a garbage bag. The poncho let the water seep through, and then it would just collect underneath. But you sort of just get used to being wet, and march on. It was a beautiful, challenging hike, that showcased some of the lower Andes mountains beneath us with fog rising from them. The scenery then changed to the high jungle. It was really neat being under the canopy of the jungle vegetation as we walked next to a running stream. We were also getting our first taste of the steep stairs that the Incas created for the pilgrimage. In high altitude, it took no time for the stairs to completely wear you out. I found the best way was to not take breaks, but to just slowly put one foot in front of the other and gradually climb the stairs in a zigzag pattern – of course while chewing loads of coca leaves. We made it to lunch where thankfully the warm sun was shining. We hung up our clothes in hopes they would dry out some, and refueled with some hot tea and big lunch. We would need all the energy we could muster if we were to overcome “Dead Woman’s Pass”. This portion of the trek is the steepest part and takes you to the highest summit of 4,200 meters. But why is it called “Dead Woman’s Pass”? According to our guide, the mountain takes the shape of a woman lying down. But we were never able to make it out. So once on top, we asked another guide why it was called that. According to him, it got its name honestly – a woman died in her attempt to cross it. It might be best that we didn’t know this before we started the ascent. After a group huddle with some inspirational words, we started up. Felipe told us it would take an hour and a half, but once you start it, you just want to get it over with as fast as possible. You know you’re going to be out of breath either way, so just deal with it and press on. With this mentality, we all managed to do it in under an hour. The hardest part was over with, and we were rewarded handsomely with the breathtaking view. We were even blessed with a rainbow glistening across the mountains. We took some photos and then started the 2-hour, steep descent on the other side. While this wore on our knees, it was nice being able to catch our breath. Wash, rinse, repeat at camp, and get ready for an unforgettable trek the next day.

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The trek for Day 3 was a long one, but had some really incredible scenery. We used a total of 10 hours, but you really didn’t notice how long it was because of the unique sites. We also got soaked this day. The very first part of the hike was up the mountain for an hour and a half, but we did it in 30 minutes. As we started up, it began to pour. But being soaking wet made us forget about being out of breath, so we blazed the trail in record time. We hid in a cave to change jackets or just prepare ourselves for the rest of the way, and started down. We had to use a lot of concentration going down in the rain because it made the loose rocks even more slippery. We chose not to make a small climb to see some ruins, and got to lunch as quickly as possible. In our wet clothes with no way of relief, we had an extremely frigid lunch in our tent. No one really wanted to keep going. However, as soon as we started walking again, our luck changed for the better. The sun came out and we were soon burning up. We had a pleasant walk, steadily up, as we gazed down at the jungle beneath us. Jungle, sunshine, mountains; how could it get any better? We had another surprise waiting for us when we reached the summit. First of all, it was a spectacular view with so many mountains of various brilliant colors around us. But best of all was the next Incan site. It was your typical Incan ruins with different levels and llamas wandering about, but with one of the best views you can imagine. The beautiful mountains go without saying, but what made this place unique was the high perch the site was on, and the other Incan site we were able to see beneath us. Having an aerial view of the large Incan site with rolling terraces was remarkable. At this site, we also performed a ceremony to thank Pachamama. We formed the trinity of coca leaves, had a moment of silence, and then placed each of our trinities in a circle around the sacrifice for Pachamama. Even without believing in this religion, we were still able to feel spiritually connected as the fueling passion from our guide influenced us. After this, I chased some llamas around for some cool pics. Speaking of llamas, they are like celebrities in many places in South America – they love them. Our guide Felipe would say things and have gestures for sexy llamas, sexy llama leg, llamasutra, and his personal creation: The Laughing Llama. He would always crack us up when did this one. All you do is put your middle finger, ring finger, and thumb together, leaving the index and pinky finger up. Then he would move the “mouth” of the hand llama up and down in unison with his outrageous cackle, “Hehehehehe” – he was a trip.

After we left this sanctuary, we walked 2 more hours to the Incan site we were able to see from above. This was also quite large, but used mostly for farming with all the many terraces. Here we were also treated to a miraculous view, with more mountains than you can count, including Machu Picchu Mountain. With still 30 minutes left to arrive at our camp, we had to use our head lamps to navigate down in the dark. We had “The Last Supper” – as they called it – and enjoyed a freshly baked cake. We hurried to bed and tried to quiet the excitement for seeing Machu Picchu the next day.

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Day 4: We had an early start, with breakfast at 03:30, and then waited an hour for the checkpoint to open. After showing our tickets, we started our walk towards the enchanted wonder that is Machu Picchu. We had a bit more pep in our step today. It was only a 2-hour trek that was mostly flat, but we had to climb the “Gringo Killer” before reaching famous Sun Gate. The “Gringo Killer” consists of 50 extremely steep steps. After defeating this obstacle, we had a short walk to the Sun Gate where we would have our first sight of Machu Picchu. We passed through the gate with extreme excitement and anticipation, and then there it was. We were finally here. Beneath us lay one of the most extreme disappointments of all time. No, I’m kidding. It was brilliant, and I have never seen anything like it before in my life. We sat on top taking in this wonder; how could it even be? How were the Incans able to create such a remarkably well-designed city high in the mountains? As we made our way down closer to it passing llamas along the way, it was so surreal actually being there. We have all seen pictures of it and thought, “Wow, that looks really cool”, but actually being there and seeing it in person is really something that cannot be described. I could try to describe it, but no words I can use would do it justice – it is just something that has to be seen. We were on cloud nine, but for some reason we quickly became disgruntled. After an exhausting four days of trekking with little sleep and no showers, we felt very deserving of such a treasure. However, we started getting passed by people who had taken the train up for the day. They had new outfits on, smelled nice, and were full of energy. What had they done to deserve this? And for no other reason than this, I couldn’t stand the sight of them. Just as I was having these hateful thoughts, one of our trekking companions said, “Does anyone else want to kick these people in the face?” We all busted out laughing as we were all thinking similar thoughts. The rest of the way down we all had a good kick making jokes about the situation. “Oh, sure. Please, you go ahead of me. You must be so tired having slept in your warm bed last night and then put on your clean clothes and took the train up!”  It was all good fun and we managed to get over our small break in spirit and fully enjoyed Machu Picchu in all its splendor. We navigated our way through the perfectly laid out stone city and learned more about its history. It was a very religious place where the king lived. They had an extremely sound irrigation system, terraces for farming different crops at different altitudes, temples, a university, and a ceremonial area where proud families could be chosen to give their kid to Pachamama for sacrificial purposes.

The architecture was unbelievable. I will never understand how they were able to move such large stones from such far distances, and place them so perfectly in the elegant design of the city.

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For whatever reason, Hanna and I didn’t think we would be tired enough from the trek, so we booked in advance to also hike the Huayna Picchu mountain on the same day. Huayna Picchu is the steep, iconic mountain in the background of Machu Picchu. It is an exclusive hike, with only 400 permits sold per day. After an abbreviated tour for us, our guide rushed us over to the starting point so we could make the bus back in time for lunch. He told us that most people use an hour, but he thought we could make the climb in 30 minutes. It was as if he were challenging us. Well, challenge accepted. Our competitive spirit forgot how tired we were and we raced off to make the steep climb of almost 1000 feet. We passed a few exhausted looking tourists coming down and they all told us it took them an hour and a half. This drove us even more. We decided to look at it as an intense cardio session and pressed on. Remember the Gringo Killers I mentioned before? Well this was basically how it was the entire time, except tighter. We went nearly as hard as we could go with only momentary breaks to wait for the path to clear. Drenched in sweat and gasping for air, I heard Hanna yell, “20 minutes!”. Almost there. Of course, the last part was the most difficult. It basically was a rock ladder in which you had to climb using both hands and feet. With the last ounce of energy we had left, we scaled the ladder and both reached the top in under 30 minutes. If you can’t tell, we are very proud of this. And best of all, the view was by far greater than any we had seen thus far. From this aerial view, we were able to appreciate the city even more as we could clearly make out the shape of the puma in which it is built. This was our favorite part of the entire trek, and we are so happy we decided to do it. And although going down was way worse and took us longer than it did to go up, it was still worth it. The view from above gave us precisely what we wanted: An unforgettable experience from Machu Picchu.

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Touring Medellín

Real City Walking Tour

This is by far the most popular tour in Medellín – and with good reason: It is a great way to see the city. It is a four hour walk, done twice a day, and it is donation based. You have to register for the tour at least a day before because it fills up quick.

On the tour, you gain some new knowledge about the paisa history, what the Colombians have been through and their current state, and go to places you might not go (or want) to by yourself. Our guide was very enthusiastic, knowledgable, and gave us a touching insight into the Colombian culture. The best part was getting to go to very local places where some of the people had never seen ‘gringos’ before. Botero Plaza, Parque de Bolívar, and Parque de las Luces were some other places we stopped by.

Before we met with our tour group we went to a local restaurant with the two people from Switzerland we met on the Pablo Escobar tour. They were also doing the walking tour. As usual the food was amazing. First we had chicken soup and then a large serving of meat, rice, beans, plantains, and spoonful lettuce – all for under $4/person!

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Pablo Escobar Tour

There were a few different tours about Pablo Escobar in Medellín, but we chose the one by Paisa Road, which is the only one recommended by Lonely Planet. There are many buildings and sites that are connected to Escobar, and this 3 hour tour takes you to the most important ones.

Our guide, Paula, did a great job telling us about Escobar from when he was born until he died. In doing so, she made us realize how serious it was and why the local people do not talk about him. Like everyone else, the guide and our driver were personally affected by Escobar and the war. The driver even had a friend who died in a bombing. Hearing them tell stories that they themselves were personally connected to made the tour very touching and real. They took us to see the building where he spent his last days, the roof where he was found dead, where he is buried, and a few buildings that are important to the history.

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El Pueblito Paisa

Pueblito Paisa is a small little village with a lot of color located at the top of Cerro Nutibara, and definitely worth a visit.

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The Reason We Chose To Travel South America

There are many places we want to travel – but the choice was easy when we heard Conner was going to Colombia to play the Q-school for the PGA Latinoamerican at the same time we were planning on travelling. Conner, Matt, and Jake all played the tournament, and Lucas got to caddy for Conner. It was a really fun experience for Lucas to be in on the action with his cousin, and Conner was able to achieve status on the tour.

The course, Club Los Lagartos, is really beautiful.

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When All Else Fails: Travel!

After a long, beautiful romance in America, we were married in Nashville, TN and then decided to move to the Kingdom of Norway to start our new home together. Simple enough, right? After all, love always prevails. However, not quite so easy with the Norwegian bureaucracy. After being denied multiple attempts of trying to get legal stay in Norway longer than a tourist visa, we have decided do some travelling as an extra long honeymoon…bummer. When you don’t have a home, you might as well get in touch with some nomadic roots.

You may or may not know how the weather is on the West Coast of Norway in the winter. When I think of Norway, I think about the sheer, beautiful mountains strategically separated by magnificent fjords; a postcard. Well the winter is when Norwegians have to “pay the piper”. It’s cold, dark, the wind blows like mad, hails, snows, and rains all the while. Coincidentally, we have decided to start our journey on the Canary Islands in Tenerife, where the sun always shines.

– Lucas & Hanna